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A Clare disaster: Fire at the Flour Mill

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

By 1850 the town of Clare boasted a police station, bakery, flour mill, two hotels and numerous retail businesses.

Later, Clare had

  • two flour mills (old and new, where the New Town Hall now stands) and

  • a Chaff Mill at the northern end of Clare’s main street, which was made over as the Seed restaurant until this year (2020).


-- Importance -- O'Leary's Mill -- Summary: Clare Flour Mills -- Opening of Kimber Mill -- Fire and £5,000 DAMAGE -- Charles Kimber -- Inquest into Fire -- Demolition -- Historical Notes



In times gone by the flour mill was a valuable asset to the town.

  • In the early days of the district, when the wheat was reaped with a sickle,

  • and later, when the place of the useful sickle was taken by the reaper, the loads to the old mill were a scene of activity.

  • From near and far the farmers brought their wheat.

  • At first it was the residents of the district close around Clare who made use of the mill, but later when the country on Blyth Plains and towards the north-west of Clare became settled all the wheat produced was brought to Clare.

  • Oft-times the roads around the mill were lined with waggons awaiting their turn to discharge their loads of golden grain.

  • All the available space was used to stack wheat — on the mill grounds, at the back of the ' Northern Argus' office, and on allotments in Mill street which have since been built upon. Those were busy days for Clare — the days when the Northern Areas were being settled upon.

O'Leary's Mill

(The Old Flour Mill)

"On Wednesday last (11 Oct 1854) the

interesting ceremony of laying the foundation stone of the (Old) Clare Steam Flour-mill took place at Clare.

  • The site chosen for the mill is in the centre of the township and contains about an acre, which is the gift of the Catholic Bishop of Adelaide to Mr. O'Leary, and is well worth from £120 to £150.

  • The building will be of stone and will be three storeys high, and the stack or chimney will be upwards of sixty feet.

  • The plan is similar to Fergusson's mill, near the Turf Hotel, Adelaide.

O'Leary's Flour Mill (First Clare Mill) Main St Clare
A Wegmann Porcelain Roller Mill 1886

The machinery and engine ordered are of the best description. The latter will be about fifteen horse power, Napier's patent (high pressure), and the whole work will, we have no doubt, be a credit to the tradesmen concerned in its erection, as the materials supplied are first-rate.

  • "The principle of roller milling is the gradual reduction of grain by breaking it open and reducing the particle size between successive pairs of rolls."

  • "At every stage of the process some flour is produced which is extracted in order to obtain the maximum amount of white flour. 

  • "As Elizabeth David wrote, ‘with the invention of the roller mill… the long search for a means of producing a uniformly white flour was over’. --Source: Roller Milling: A Gradual Takeover


The old mill was built by the late Mr. Dan O'Leary, and completed by the late Mr. Hannaford. Then the late Mr. Charles Kimber took the mill over in 1864, and worked it for some years.

  • In 1877 he let it for a term of about four years to the late Mr. Alfred Palmer, while he himself and family went to Kadina and worked the mill at that place.

  • After Mr. Palmer's lease expired Mr. Kimber worked the mill again.

  • A few years later he took three of his sons into partnership, and decided to build an up-to-date roller mill.

The machinery was imported from America and Sweden, and it was a gala day for Clare when the new mill opened.

  • It worked for about four years, when it was destroyed by a fire which broke out in the smut chamber at the top of the building, and everything but the walls were destroyed.

  • The old mill was saved only by reason of an iron door between the old and new buildings.

  • The firm decided to put new roller- machinery in the old mill, which was done, Messrs. Henry and Richard Kimber conducting the business for some years.

  • Later Mr. Richard Kimber left Clare, and Mr Henry Kimber carried on until he gave it up, and took the baking business now conducted by Mr. E. W. Wells.

The mill has not worked since, and a few years later the late Mr. Jas. Hill purchased the property.

  • It was offered on lease to several millers, including Deland and Black, but none would lease it.

  • A few years later the machinery was broken up and sold. Will there ever be another flour mill in Clare ?



In order to keep pace with the times — which is an important point in this go-ahead age — and keep level with other millers, Messrs. G. Kimber & Sons, of Clare, towards the end of last year determined to erect a new mill, fitted with the latest modern machinery, in order to turn out flour of an extra fine Quality.

A similar flour mill, now restored, at Fleurieu Peninsula

Tenders were accordingly invited, and in due course a two-storey structure, 74 feet long and 47 feet 6 inches wide, was built adjoining the old mill (pictured above left). The building is spacious, substantially put together, and is in every way adapted for the purpose for which it is intended. The ingenious inventions of the nineteenth century reign paramount, and the complex machinery necessary for the production of the 'whitest flour' must be seen to be appreciated and thoroughly understood.

To bring the work to a speedy conclusion a large number of mechanics were engaged on the building, which was soon finished.

  • Through the middle of the first floor is placed the main shaft, from which the whole mill plant is driven. Cast iron pillars resting on solid foundations support it.

  • Behind a row of 20 elevator bottoms — all of them placed in one line — is the driving shaft for the wheat cleaning machinery, wheat-scouring, and brush machines, which are placed on solid pillars.

  • The second floor contains a row of five centrifugal (separators) and one silk. Behind them are placed five double roller mills, one sieve, one gravity purifier, and one silk 20 feet in length and the rest of the wheat cleaning machinery, consisting of a separator, oat-extractor, and screen.

The rest of the wheat cleaning machinery consists of a separator, oat-extractor, and screen.

  • The wheat cleaning machines are fed from a large hopper in the warehouse adjoining the mill, and the wheat is elevated to the wheat separator, which machine removes all loose dirt, straw, &c.

  • After this it falls to the scouring machine and then to the brush machine.

  • The next machine takes out all oats and barley, and at the last machine the wheat falls into a screen. The cleaned wheat is then stored in a large bin, and elevated to the first pair of breaking rollers. -- Read More

Flour Mill on Fire, Mill Street Adelaide
Fire at the Adelaide Steam Flour Mill, Mill Street


"The practical outcome of Clare's biggest blaze on Saturday night, about 7 p.m., on July 26, 1890 (51 years ago) is contained in the latter part of the verdict into that £5,000 fire, which stated":

  • "There is no evidence to show how the fire originated that burnt down Messrs. H. and R. Kimber's mill.

  • The Jury recommends that steps should be taken to ORGANISE A FIRE BRIGADE in Clare."

  • "Although over 51 years have passed since the foreman of that Jury (the late Alfred Tilbrook), made this dramatic pronouncement in the Clare Court House, no Fire Brigade has ever eventuated.

  • Like lot of other things in Clare they never seem to get past the talking or agitation stage; the long neglected water supply being a case in point." More details below.


"BURNING OF THE CLARE MILL.—Estimated Damage £5,000.

"The utmost excitement and consternation were caused in Main Street, Clare on Saturday evening about 7 o'clock, by an alarm being given of fire. "Kimber's Mill is on fire," vociferated several persons, and a regular stampede was made for the place of conflagration. In a short space of time a large number of people were on the spot, and they took matters very calmly.

From the door of the smut house a dense black cloud of smoke was issuing - and having no Fire Reel it was plainly seen that the building was doomed. Mr. H. Kimber. who lives adjacent to the property received the alarm, and in company with one or two others proceeded to the upper story, but the fire having got such a hold they could do nothing to save the place.

In another 10 minutes the fire burst through the roof, and the Police and other willing hands worked in the smoke and heat throwing out bags of flour in a most dauntless and spirited manner, while the onlookers placed the stuff in a place of safety.

Buckets of water were next in demand, and everything possible to do was done by all sorts and conditions of men, the "Captain" of the Salvation Army being a prominent personage. In the meantime a number of men entered the store room and removed tons of the wheat, &c., and placed it in the middle of Main Street, blocking up vehicle traffic, which, of course, under the circumstances was only of minor importance.

By this time the fire was raging with impotent fury, casting lurid glare for some considerable distance round, while the men were gallantly fighting with the fire fiend. Things began to look very critical indeed at this juncture, as the fascia boards of the old two-storey mill had caught alight, and it was a most anxious time. A light was observed in the last mentioned building, when the crowd called out:—"The Old Mill is on Fire!" but it turned out to be a man with a lantern, and he managed to extinguish the flames on the boards outside.

Historic Clare Hotel Main Road, Clare SA
The Clare Hotel (The Middle Pub)

The crowd then resolved to take the furniture out of Mr. Kimber's dwelling, and they carried it to the Clare Hotel on the opposite side of the street.

After the machinery had dropped down from the top storey the flames abated considerably, and with praiseworthy determination and pluck the fire was kept from spreading outside of the ill-fated building.

At 9 o'clock the fire was well under, and the produce was again taken inside the store, although a considerable quantity of wheat got out of the bags.

This is the largest conflagration that has been witnessed in Clare, and business in the evening was entirely suspended, many of the storekeepers closing their premises when hearing of the outbreak..

Mr. R. Kimber informs us that until about 12 months ago they had not quite mastered the complicated machinery. Of course. the origin of the fire, which broke out in the smut room at the top of the building, is simply conjecture, some putting it down to spontaneous combustion.

The mill. machinery and stock were insured in the Imperial Fire Office for £3,800, and the damage sustained is estimated at £5,000.

We might mention that great credit is due to the police for the creditable manner in which they carried out their duties, besides watching the mill day and night in turns. During the first part of the fire rain was slowly descending and the night was beautifully calm, which was advantageous to the workers.

Mr. Chas. Kimber, Sen., who resides about a mile and a half from Clare, observed the smoke coming from the building, but he thought it was a haystack on fire some distance from Clare. An inquest will be held on Wednesday next at 3 o'clock p.m.


In the same issue is a strongly worded letter on Fire Brigades, written to the Editor in the Open Column signed by C. H. Wood.

He says "The eyes of our townspeople were opened at Saturday night's disaster as to the importance of providing such an institution—Clare having had four fires in two years."


Charles Kimber

  • Charles Kimber (15 January 1826 – 29 August 1913) was an orchardist, flour miller and politician in colonial South Australia.

  • Charles was born in Newbury, Berkshire, and began as a storekeeper in Burra, then on Yorke Peninsula, and also tried farming in the vicinity of Mintaro.

  • He moved to the Clare district, planting currant vines, which became a sizeable industry. In 1864 he took over Frederick Hannaford's flour mill in Clare, where the (new) Town Hall was later built.

  • In 1877 he leased it to Alfred Palmer and moved to Kadina to run that mill, returning to Clare in 1881 to run the mill in partnership with his sons Henry and Richard.[1]

  • The Riverton Mill was later run by his son, Charles Kimber, Jr. - More at Wikipedia



An inquest was held in the Court House, Clare on Wednesday, July 30 (1890) to enquire into the origin of the fire that consumed the Clare Mill on Saturday, July 26.

  • Mr. W. Kelly, J.P., was coroner, and the following jurymen were empannelled: —Messrs.

  • E. C. Rix, J.P.,

  • W. A. DuRieu, W. Richardson, P. Gillen, W. A. Young, and A. Tilbrook (foreman.)

  • Mr. J. R. Ferguson watched proceedings on behalf of the Imperial Fire Office.

Brief details of lengthy evidence submitted was given by:—

  • C. Kimber, Sen., who stated he was the owner of the mill;

  • by C. Hammond, engine driver;

  • by H. Kimber. mill manager resident on the north side of the building:

  • by J. H. Both, the miller;

  • by Geo. T. Smith, the smutter-man, who had not been in the smut room (where the fire broke out) for five or six weeks before, being employed on the lower floor;

  • by Mounted Constable Jamieson, who courageously went upstairs to the smut-room with H. Kimber and others;

  • the final witness was J. Berridge, miller, who had left the premises at 5 o'clock, the same as al! the other employees.

  • This ended the inquest and the verdict has been set out at the commencement of this exciting history of the flour mill fire (see Report above).



The walls of die old Clare mill are being demolished. The pity of it — that the home of a once flourishing industry should have to be levelled to the ground to make room for a new Clare Town Hall.


Historical Notes

The First steam flour mill is discussed in

The formal opening of Kimber and Sons new roller-mill is reported in

Clare Pictorial Archive: Northern Argus Newspaper: Archival Revival: Clare | PHOTOS

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